Guitar Player April 1995 (304)

Inside the Peppermill Dave Navarro and Flea reinvent the Chilis

By Joe Gore

“I remember ten years ago in Hollywood/We did some good and we did some real bad stuff…” With tentative pitch but unblinking honesty, Flea sings the breakdown section of a still-untitled song as producer Rick Rubins nods along in the control room of L.A.’s Ocean Way Studios. The lyrics, in essence, are the bassist’s summary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first decade, an autobiography in 16 bars. Flea continues: “But like the Butthole Surfers say, it’s better to regret something you did than something you didn’t do/Yeah,  we were young, but we’re still looking for the deep kick/ I’ve seen ‘em come and seen ‘em go. But were still… we’re still…” He stops, stymied. “I’m still not sure what the last time should be,” he admits. He tries, “still looking forward” and “still kicking ass, motherfuckers,” but the evening session concludes with the final lyric unresolved.

Irresolution haunts the Peppers at the moment. Despite the resounding success of their last effort, 1991’s Rubin-produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they’ve endured incessant personal changes, health problems, and a massive sonic shock triggered by the recruitment of Jane’s Addiction veteran Dave Navarro, the Pepper’s seventh guitarist. (Chronological tally: the late Hillel Slovak, Jack Sherman, Hillel again, Dewayne [sic} “Blackbyrd” McKnight, John Frusciante, Arik Marshall, Jesse Tobias, Navarro). The group’s upcoming album- their sixth not counting Out in L.A., a demos and remixes package recently issued by the band’s formal label- has been repeatedly postponed. Even though most of the instrumental tracks are completed, singer Anthony Kiedis is battling with a serious case of writer’s’ block; promised last fall, the record is unlikely to arrive before summer.

But judging by a dozen or so rough mixes- many without vocals or even final titles- the band’s tribulations have been worth it. As simplistic as it sounds to describe the new sound as a Jane’s Addiction/Chili Peppers hybrid, the spectacular new material truly does imbue the Chilis’ time-honed groove with the psychoactive color and imaginative riffing that Navarro contributed to his former band. Hearing the album-to-be affords us a remarkable glimpse into the methods and motives behind one of the decade’s most eagerly awaited rock records.

Earlier that day Flea sat in his sunny kitchen, running down a new song called ‘”I’ve Been Down (I Could have Floated).”  Strumming a droning  E minor progression on a battered old Martin- a  gift from Rubin- the 32-year-old bassist signs of disorientation, loneliness, physical pain.  Hope , it’s not autobiographical; man.

“It’s totally autobiographical,” he laughs. “This is the first time I’ve written on guitar, and it feels more personal. Not that a bass line doesn’t feel personal, but it’s a different dynamic, a different feeling, a different stage for me in my approach to playing rock music. Our songs have usually started from the bass riff, but starting from guitar makes me write songs with definite emotions, as opposed to just saying, ‘Here’s a groove, you guys,’ I’m thinking more of simple chords and melody to start with so the songs sound less like a bunch of parts stuck together. After that, I can put a cool bass line to it pretty easily. Rick likes the song-oriented stuff more, and he this everything on the new record is record is a hundred times better than our last one.  I think both records are great, but they’re really different.”

A Harley roars into the driveway, and a moment later Dave Navarro strides into the kitchen. It’s time to listen to DATs of the tracks-in-progress. Amid the tribal masks and the mountain of punk and jazz CDs in Flea’s den/listening room, the musicians debate which cuts to spin, visibly buzzed about playing their new  music for outside ears.  While Flea cues up the tape, the 27-year-old guitarist runs angular riffs on a battered Silvertone. “I love parts like this,” he grins. “Wrong and bad.”

From the first chord of the first cut it’s clear that the band is venturing into very different territory. Dave unleashes an avalanche of over-dubbed guitars, displaying, as he did with Jane’s Addiction and Deconstruction (his one-off studio project with Jane’s bassist Eric Avery), dual  interests in Zep-era riffage and post-punk abstraction. He spins a psychoactive tapestry of guitar colors: atonal percussive jabs, slinky octaves, immaculate Hendrix-inflected wah work, veils of ambient delay.  It’s the polar opposite of the dry minimalism favoured by Slovak and Frusciante, Navarro’s key predecessors. Dave stresses that the band and Rubin have yet to weed through the thicket of guitar tracks, but he narrates his dream as we listen: “This part will be gone….this is too loud… I’ll have to fight to keep that scratchy wah noise…”

Even more impressive than Dave’s luminescent performance are the band’s startling yet organic groove “morphs.” An angular intro gives way to a lumbering Band Of Gypsies feel, the rhythm section building to orgasmic crescendos before exploding beneath a frantic wah solo. Next they veer into a staggering funk groove riddled with Swiss-cheese syncopations.  The long track unwinds with a chimey D major section whose pretty, after-the-storm feel recalls the coda of “Layla” before returning to the wicked funk. The 12-minute cut has enough ideas for five songs yet never songs pompous or prog. It bespeaks a new level of flesh-and-blood flexibility for a band whose structures gave tended towards groove A/groove B.

“It’s actually two songs together,” explains Flea. “The second one, the funky part, is called ‘Stretch You Out.’ The first one doesn’t have a title yet, but we call it ‘Gang Of Four’ because the first part sounds like the Gang Of Four. All of this was put together before we had any idea of what the vocal tracks would be.”

“I’ve been freaking out about this music,” confesses Navarro. “Some days I’m like, ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ and some days I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know what I’ve done.’ I don’t know if hard-core Pepper fans are going to get into it or not, though it’s certainly not wimped out. But it’s good-isn’t it?”

It’s way beyond good, though it’s a bit strange hearing Flea and drummer Chad Smith surrounded by dense overdubs and atmospherics effects (including at one point, Dave simply banging the back of his guitar neck and sculpting the noise with wah). “Our other guitarists were atmospheric in different ways,” suggests Flea. “But this sort of echoey, atmospheric playing over a funk groove is where we’ve hit a whole new sound. It’s brand-new, but it’s still all about pelvic trust. So often people try so hard in a cerebral way to create something new that they get away from the natural human function of music, which is to enliven the bodily fluids. We were cerebral at first with Dave, but once we got past that, we came up with something that was relaxed and human.”

Next up is another long, free-form cut full of lush colors and stunning groove mutations. “It might be called ‘Transcending,’” says Flea. “I wrote it for River Phoenix- he was my best friend. I think it’s my favourite.” Over a slinky eight-note bass line, Dave’s immaculately doubled rhythm tracks have an eerie, phase-shifted sound, and the lovely progression drips exotic modal color. But just when you’re lulled by its prettiness, the musicians ricochet into a slower, heavier dreamscape full of shimmering rhythm stabs and melted-watch feedback.

The spacey, narcotic quality of both tracks recalls some of Jane’s Addiction’s more ambitious songs. “Yeah,” nods Dave. “Those longer pieces like, “Ted, Just Admit It,’ ‘And Then She Did’ and ‘Three Days’ were my favourite things from Jane’s.” “I love it,” enthuses Flea. “Jane’s Addiction was undoubtedly a huge influence on me and they would have been even if I’d never met Dave. They were the greatest rock band of the last ten years, and I don’t even know if there’s anything I’ve liked in hard rock since them. But this was a direction we’d been wanting to go, even before Dave joined. On the last record John Frusciante and I wrote a few longer songs, things that would build and build and then go into a whole other universe, but they didn’t get done for the album. With Dave it was able to happen.”

On “Warped,” a swirling psychedelic intro with weird Doppler shift oscillations gives way to a piledriver E major grove and an ecstatic freakout section full of roiling toms, feedback, wah chomps, and syncopated accents delivered with martial, Bruce Lee precision. A dreamy coda glistens with saturated sustain and rich chromatic harmonies. Is “Jane’s meets the Peppers” a fair description? “Yeah,” replies Dave. “It sounds like that to me too.”

“Here’s a hard rock number,” chuckles Flea, cueing up another long track with the working title “Epic.” “Dave and I worked it out together. We both stole from led Zeppelin’s ‘In The Light’ without admitting it to each other till later.” A wobbly, seasick bass intro precedes a rumbling, low-E bass riff below Dave’s nagging C#-D bends, which are countered by surprise modal shifts to C_ Dave’s liquid, Hendrix-approved rhythm playing and crystalline picking haunt the spooky, dubbed-out middle section. “This breakdown used to be a solo,” explains Navarro, but I liked it better sparse and open like this. I used a Boss phase shifter on minimal settings. One track was recorded with me standing next to the amp with screaming loud feedback, but it’s pulled way back in the mix, so it sounds like a guy playing out of 50 Marshalls in a canyon.”

The song pulsates with colors and dynamics not found in the band’s previous work, as does “Psychedelic” (a working title), another blissful marriage of muscular groove and textural detail in which a clanging A# riff against an E groove lends a bright Lydian feel a la Zep’s “Dancing Days.” The atmospheric intro also includes a track of drone guitar, all the strings tuned to D in various octaves. “You can hear it way in the background with plate reverb and infinite repeats,” notes Dave. “There’s also Jerry Jones electric sitar, feed-back, a little Robert Smith line, and a strummed part going through my Boss digital delay pedal on infinite repeat.” What are those weird notes in the solo? “I broke a string, and it sound so good that I sampled that part and added it again later. And on some of the bends I fold the first string all the way over the second, so it sounds ‘wrong’ in a cool way.”

Not every song departs from the Peppers’ trademark sounds. Aside from Dave’s unmistakable wah work, the Bootsyesque “Walkabout” returns to an acid-funk vein long mined by the band. It’s a buoyant ‘70s pastiche, down to the Talk Box guitar tracks. Recalls Flea, “I came up with the bass line after I saw Spike lee’s Crooklyn, which has all these great 70s funk bass lines. That music has a great party atmosphere. It’s from that time when everybody was doing coke and not worrying about getting AIDS. In all music today, there’s so much more fear and angst. It’s symbolic of the way everything is spiralling downwards, especially here in Los Angeles.  I came here from Australia in ’72, and this place has been turning to shit in every possible way since then.” “Uh-oh,” interrupts Dave, “it’s the solo! That real tinny sound is a Fernandes practice guitar with a little amp and a speaker built into it. Actually, I had a real problem with this groove for a long time, but now I love it.” “Yeah,” snorts Flea, “you used to call it ‘Crapabout’!”

The nearly complete “My Friends,” a dropped-D ballad Flea composed on acoustic, is earmarked as a single. “It’s the big, commercial, money-maker rock song,” he announces. “But it’s my favourite song on the album,” says Navarro. “I used a Boss tremolo pedal for that Bread song.” Does the record have a title yet? “Yeah,” cracks the guitarist, “we’re going to call it Dave Needs To Make House Payments.”

Facetious cynicism and self-criticism notwithstanding, the musicians are obviously exhilarated by the triumphant music. “Me and Dave are good together, aren’t we?” beams Flea. “As we were talking, I suddenly had a feeling like we’ll still be playing together 40 years from now.”

Driving to lunch, we listen to more tracks: “The Junkie Song,” a Chad Smith percussion extravaganza, and “The Pea Song,” an-off-the-cuff Flea solo in which he and his Sigma acoustic bass skewer “homophobic redneck dicks.” Next Flea cues up “Music Is My Aeroplane,” a completed song that the Chilis included in their Woodstock ’94 and European sets last summer. It’s straighter than the other cuts, and Dave’s direct-to-the-board rhythm guitar strays further into Frusciante territory than anything we’ve heard so far. “Tell me if you like my bass part,” requests Flea. “I’ve played this so much better live, and I think this version sucks. It sounds stiff, static, like a white boy playing in the studio. But on MTV they had footage of us playing it live and it sounded awesome.” “It doesn’t suck at all,” counters Dave. “But maybe it could be brighter sounding, and maybe the big chorus and the funk part should have different sounds.”

“’Airplane’ is the only song on the record where I slap the bass,” notes Flea. “At this point I have absolutely zero desire to prove I’m a bitchin’ bass player. Believe me, if a magazine says I’m great or I win a prize, it’s a really nice feeling to be respected. But I want to connect to people on an emotional level, not to be Mr. Bass Player Guy…” Dave interrupts: “But you are Mr. Bass Player Guy, and you’re stuck with it. But what’s cool about your bass playing on the record is that everyone already knows what you can do. Now you’re choosing to write parts that are more about the music and the song.”

Flea and Dave have such a relaxed, mutually supportive rapport that it’s hard to believe their collaboration started on very uneasy footing. Unlike Frusciante, who’d joined the group as an ardent fan, Navarro had never owned a Chilli Peppers record prior to signing on. “It wasn’t until we did the European leg of the last tour that I began to feel like I really was in the band,” he remembers. “That was like a year after I’d joined. I felt strange for a long time because the band played a style of music I didn’t, and they aren’t a band like Motley Crue, where you could just stick in any guitar player and it would work okay. I tried to take a step towards the band, and they took a step toward as what I did, but neither of us did each other’s thing comfortably, we were coming up with unnatural, forced things.”

The discomfort was mutual, says Flea: “When Dave first joined, we did have a really awkward time for a few months. We made the mistake of trying to meet each other at a halfway point, as opposed to just creating something totally new. But when we finally stopped worrying about what was cool with each other and just made it an emotional thing, that’s when we started to get busy.” “Yeah,” nods Dave. “At some point I stopped trying to meet them in the middle and just started doing what I always do. We do emulate each other’s styles somewhat, but that’s more a matter of being fluid with one another as players, as opposed to forcing ourselves to be something we’re not.”

Over vegetarian Middle Eastern lunch- former heavy drug uses, Flea and Navarro now maintain strictly sober health regimens- the musicians recount the album’s complex genesis. Recruiting Dave mere weeks after announcing Jesse Tobias as Frusciante’s permanent replacement, the Chilis commenced strained rehearsals in Hollywood.  They moved onto Hawaii, bonding and writing much of the material we’ve just heard. Next the band checked into the San Rafael, California, Studio where Pearl Jam tracked Vs. No go- they retreated to L.A., shuttling between Grand Master, Ocean Way, Sound City, and Hollywood Sound, where Navarro maintained his usual practice of crafting his parts in marathon overdub orgies. “Hollywood Sound,” intones Dave, “was where I had my nervous breakdown.”

Nervous breakdown? “Yeah. I was going to court. See, I lost my mom when I was 15-she was murdered. The guy who killed her, her ex-boyfriend- had been on the loose for like ten years, but they finally caught him. So we just had the trial. He killed my aunt at the same time. I’d have to see him in court, and let me tell you, it was fucking heavy. There was no concrete evidence, but I could testify to a lot of stuff that had happened earlier, so I was the only witness. I hadn’t seen him for like 12 years, but he’d lived with us for five years before the murder. He was sentenced to death. It’s weird- I go back and forth about how I feel about it. I spent all these years wanting him to die. Now I question how I feel about it. The way I look at the death penalty thing is that I don’t have to feel anyway about it, because he did what he did and was judged that way, and not by me. He made his own destiny, and I’m not personally saying, ‘Kill him’ and I’m not pulling the switch. It was rough when my mom was killed, and her death was a major contributing factor to my drug problems.  I went to therapy for a long, long time, and then to anonymous group meetings, and I’m okay with it now.  It was a long time ago, and the court thing was a nice closure to something that had been hanging over me.”

Dave gazes out of the window of his newly purchased Hollywood Hills home. “I can see John Frusciante’s house from here,” he says. “I want to make a record with him, just put amps on each of our roofs, jam and record it directly to DAT. He’s probably the only musician in the world who would go for it.”

Navarro wanders over to his new baby grand piano and launches into a creditable rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” “I’ve just started taking lessons from a classical teacher,” he explains. “I’ve always been able to play chords and stuff, but now I’m playing Satie and Bach two and three-part inventions. She’s teaching me to read music. I never wanted to know how before, but now I’m really fascinated by it. My assignment the other day was to come up with a piece of music and write it down. The other day I had a lesson at 11.30A.M., got home at 1:00 and played straight through till 2:00 in the morning. It’s all I want to do now.”

Is Dave’s goal to refine his professional goals or to escape from them? “Good question. I suppose I do want to become more refined at what I do on guitar, but that’s secondary. I love piano for itself. I’ve always been envious of someone who could sit down and play a beautiful classical piece. I can’t watch television because I think too much and can’t pay attention. I can’t meditate or even just sit around and relax. There’s nothing I can do to turn my head off, so maybe piano is an escape.”

Dave details how he plans to have the piano room painted, sounding much as he did when describing how his final mixes would be structured. “I love color,” he purrs. “I see music when I hear it. When I don’t see colors, I’m not into the music. A lot of bands that people really like, I don’t, because I don’t get the colourful vibe from them. Even old Chili Peppers –I truly respect Hillel, and John is one of the greatest guitar players around. His ideas, technique, and talent are incredible. But even though I’m blown away by him, I don’t really enjoy music like that from a listening standpoint. It’s too dry and percussive, as opposed to the saturated and warm sounds I like.”

Is it too facile to describe Navarro’s style as a marriage of overkill ‘70s gonad guitar and early-‘80s post-punk texturalism? “No, I love that description,” he replies. “’Led Zeppelin meets The Cure’ is an okay generalisation, because I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by both bands. Maybe that’s my dual personality- I don’t believe in astrology per se, but I am a Gemini. I’d be totally bored if I was just playing heavy rock guitar or just wimpy atmospheric guitar, but I love doing both.”

Those sensibilities fuse each time Navarro paints one of his sonic canvases. “I don’t set out to record zillions of tracks,” he insists. “I always start out thinking I’ll go really minimal, but I never seem to like one of my tracks by itself, though I like it when other players use a single track. I might double the rhythms and think, ‘Wow, that sounds better.’  And no matter how good the rhythms sound, I never like to leave just rhythm guitar, especially not big power chords. I like to be more multi-dimensional. Anyway, the more the song gets played, the more little holes I hear where something could fit, and all that time I have the echoes and ambience in my head, even if they’re not on the track yet. I guess I’d rather have too many guitars on tape and pull tracks away when we mix, as opposed to sitting there during the mix and saying, ‘Wow, I wish I’d done that or doubled this.’”

Subtractive composition? “Absolutely. Anytime I record, I do that process, though with this record there were more defined guitar parts prior to recording than I’ve ever had before. In Jane’s I literally didn’t know what the hell I was going to play when I went into the studio. In rehearsals and gigs prior to recording, I would make everything up every time.”

Dave’s estimation of his own abilities is subject to violent mood swings. “I never have a realistic sense of self,” he confesses. “I either think everything I do is terrible and I’m the worst guy on the planet, or from time to time I’ll think I’m the greatest gift to music and the coolest guy who ever lived, but that happens maybe an hour out of the week.  Some days I’m more concerned with how my hair looks than what my guitar sounds like. But one of the many things I learned from Perry Farrell in Jane’s Addiction is someone who’s not a guitar player can come up with the most amazing shit in the world. Perry wasn’t really a player, but he would twang away on one-string parts that were so cool they were mind-boggling. I think that experience helped me not to care so much about the technical side of stuff. It was a shining example of the fact that you don’t have to submerge yourself in that side of music in order to make it.”

Luckily for Navarro, he has enough innate musicality and facility so that practice/don’t practice is a viable option.; he never sounds like a member of the anti-technique camp. Consider the live-without-fixes version of “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” on the Woodstock ’94 compilation: Dave makes his recorded Peppers debut with a performance remarkable for its rhythmic surety, high-cholesterol tones, gorgeous solo, and stellar CryBaby technique. No vague sweeping for Dave- he zeroes right in on his target frequencies, establishing contrasting tonal regions that can sound almost like two simultaneous guitars. Adds Dave, “A lot of that character, that ‘cut’ sound, has to do with the guitar’s volume control. On the intro to that song, I’m on about 5.”

Navarro admits to some nervousness about how the Peppers will be received: “There’s always a back door in my mind reminding me that the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was incredibly huge, and now everyone is about to judge the new record with the new guy. That back door wasn’t there when we did the Jane’s stuff. We didn’t expect that music to do well, so all we cared about was whether it made us happy.  And while I’m still mostly concerned with making myself happy creatively, I have to confess that the big question mark of how this record will do is always there.”

Two weeks after Flea strummed “I’ve Been Down (I Could Have Floated) “at his kitchen table, he and Navarro are back at Ocean Way tracking the song with Jane’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros drummer Steve Perkins. Recorded under Flea’s name with the bassist on vocals, it will appear on the upcoming The Basketball Diaries soundtrack album. Over a percolating bed of ethno-hippie percussion, Navarro has fleshed out Flea’s original guitar concept with a sparse (for Dave) three-guitar texture. True to form, Dave has already forgotten which acoustic guitar he used for the glistening tracks. “He doesn’t even own an acoustic,” smirks Flea.

His contempt for technical concerns notwithstanding, Navarro seems constitutionally incapable of getting a bad tone. His detailed tracks always seem to hum, the parts themselves inseparable from the tones in which they’re cloaked.  “I know what you mean,” deadpans Flea. “It’s like an octopus came out of a cave and spread out its tentacles, and it was purple, and you saw it floating around. Yeah.”

“I’m glad to be recording this,” says Navarro. “At least it’s work.” The tune is one of many projects Flea and Dave have taken on while they wait for Anthony’s creative logjam to clear. “We just played on a song with Michael Stipe and Tori Amos for the soundtrack of Don Juan di San Marco a film with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp,” reports Flea. “I played bass live with her while she sang and played piano. She was really dynamic.” “They’re really sweet, generous people,” adds Dave, “but they’re both kind of out there.  They just can’t tell you something simple; it has to be part of a huge, long metaphor. I asked, ‘Tori, what kind of guitar sound do you want here,’ and I swear she said ‘an unshaven Moroccan yoghurt spice.’ I said, ‘Okay- that’s just what I was planning on doing!’”

Meanwhile, Navarro turned down a gig with Tom Jones for the Billboard Music Awards (“If I want that much stress, I’ll do it with my own band”), but agreed to produce a new version of Janet Jackson’s “What’ll I Do?” with an assist from Flea and Chad. “It’s kind of a corny pop tune,” says Dave, “but I was excited because it was a chance to put my foot through the production door. We ended up recutting the bass, drums, and guitar, just keeping the vocal tracks. At times I put Janet’s voice through a Boss distortion pedal. It came out really cool and different, with her ‘sweet’ thing on top of this ugly industrial funk. I submitted it last week, prepared for them to reject it, but I just got word that Janet likes it.”

One of Navarro’s Strats stands in the corner, Hey man, can I see your guitar? “I’d rather you didn’t,” he scowls. Jeez, sorry for asking. “No, I’m kidding. Like I care! I just put this dent in it when I threw it across the stage.” He studies the ding, decides the instrument needs more character, and starts banging it with a screwdriver. “People can never tell when I’m kidding, because I never crack a smile. I did a session once with [R.E.M. producer] Scott Litt. I was straight at the time, though everybody thought I was a junkie, I walked into the studio, and he said, “Hi, I’m Scott Litt,” and I said, “Hi, I need to borrow $500.” He didn’t know what to do, he was so uncomfortable.”

Flea laughs; it reminds him of a River Phoenix anecdote: “Once River came to me and said, ‘Look, Flea, there’s something I really need to talk to you about. I think I should play rhythm guitar for you guys- it would really fill out the sound.’ He seemed really serious. I was just stammering, not knowing what to say, and then he just started laughing. He’d just wanted to see me sweat.”

The musicians take a break from our photo shoot. Photographer Jim Marshall howls with delight when he sees Flea’s Hendrix tattoo, copied from one of Marshall’s classic shots. Flea doesn’t want to pose with his Alembic bass, so he borrows a battered Kay from the punk band tracking next door. Meanwhile Dave has scrawled, “Campfire Girls” on his victimized Strat, a plug for a friend’s band.

Back in the control room, the track sounds fantastic. Flea and Dave play beautifully together, navigating the ebb-and-flow dynamics with near psychic empathy. Between the album tracts and their side projects, the two have settled into richly complementary styles, forging a new sound that seems unlikely to disappoint either Chilis or Jane’s fans. So when will those fans get to hear it? “When Anthony sings, the record will get done,” answers Flea. “It will be fucking incredible. You know, to play good music you just have to be open enough to be a vehicle for whatever is around you. The music we’ve recorded definitely has that openness, but it’s supposed to be out already. Now it’s time for the next level of growth and emotion.”

Pepper Paraphernalia? “We don’t care!”

“I don’t know how to set up my gear for live,” stated Dave Navarro. “I stopped knowing as soon as we got a roadie,” echoes Flea. “We don’t care!” they crow in unison. But under persistent interrogation, Dave yields some specifics:”These days I use mostly new Fender Custom Shop Strats. I never liked Strats before, but when I started learning the old Chili Peppers stuff, my other guitars didn’t sound right, so I used a Strat for those songs, figuring that I’d just go to a Paul Reed Smith or something for new stuff, but I just got used to the Strats.  I’m definitely not doing the type of playing I would on a Paul Reed Smith or an Ibanez. To me, those guitars are a lot more lead-orientated, great for ripping  solos, which I don’t do too much anymore. I use three Strats with the Peppers live. I think they have a Stevie Ray Vaughan pickup configuration. I like the one with the tortoise-shell pickup best for some reason, so I use it till it needs to be switched. I don’t go out of tune very much, and I don’t use much whammy-just when I play myself into a corner, lose the time, and have no way to get back in. I’ll whammy until I find the one, doing the ‘Look! He’s being a punk’ thing.

“I use Marshall JCM 900s and Bogner heads. The Bogners are really great, but I wouldn’t want to play one live- they’re definitely too complex for me. I prefer to plug in and not think about it. If I want a clean sound, I just use a nice old vintage Marshall. For an ugly dirty sound, I usually use the lead channel on the new Marshalls. I always have the gain set on 20. If there was 21, I’d use that. I know it fucks with your tone, but it sounds smoother. It even feels smoother on the strings.”

Guitar tech Eric Porter (nicknamed “Porkchop” by Primus for whom he also works) has supervised Navarro’s live setup since the early days of Jane’s Addiction. He says his job is easy: “The main thing I do when Dave is onstage is switch his Strats. Live, Dave has two JCM 900s, two 4×12 straight cabinets, and a bunch of footpedals, which are Velcroed to a carpet-covered board. Aside from the Jim Dunlop CryBaby, all his effects are Boss: chorus, digital delay, phaser, and a Turbo Distortion, which he uses mainly for leads. There’s a Boss power-supply-pedal – Dave doesn’t use the loop function- and an A/B box to tuner on the pedal board. Dave has used Dean Markley .009s for years, but only because they hand ‘em to us- he doesn’t really care about string brands.” Dave always plays with a pick. Aside from reproducing John Frusciante’s “Power of Equality” part, which calls for lowering the high E to D#, Navarro’s only tuning variation is dropped D.

For most of the new record Flea plays a new Alembic 4-string. “I’d never be caught dead playing it live,” he shudders. “I always use a Music Man Stingray onstage. But the Alembic is like the Wal I used on the last record. I didn’t really like it either, but it was so easy to record with- you get a tone, boom. In the studio I’m using a combination of amp and direct sounds. I never think much about amps, though the Mesa Boogie cabinet and Gallien-Krueger head I have sound fine to me.”

Flea is generally more concerned with laying down the groove and concocting tough lines rather than dicking around with his tone or splitting hairs over intonation. Last year I witnessed his studio approach when we both played on Jon Hassell’s Dressing For Pleasure album. Flea wasted no time fussing over his sound.  The producer plugged his Music Man into the board through a modest BBE preamp, Flea pronounced it “good enough for me,” and off we went.  We improvised for hours, and Flea was a bottomless pit of hip bass ideas. He lays down the one, big-time- it’s like jamming with a locomotive. A deaf person could pick up the groove just by watching his neck muscles pulsate.

Flea started working with tech Andre O’Neill (INXS, Mick Ronson, Ziggy Marley,  Kool & The Gang) just in time for the Chilis’ recent Pasadena Rose Bowl dates with the Rolling Stones. “I had a guy before who I took to Europe,” grimaces the bassist. “Public Enemny was playing, and he sai, ‘What a bunch of nig-nogs,’ so I fired him on the spot, the racist basatrd.”

“I told Flea that I generally get called in for hard-to-handle people,” relates Andre. “He said, ‘What?!’ He’s actually very cool to work for. What blew me away was how simple his bass rig is- no effects at all except a Boss FT-2 pedal. He uses three Gallien-Krueger 800RB amps, two of them slaved to the first one. His cabinets are Mesa-Boogies- man, I was so impressed by the presence and volume of those speakers. But here’s the catch: Flea makes up for what he doesn’t need in terms of electronics with what he requires from his bass. When it comes to neck adjustment, string height, and so forth, he’s very demanding- and not always consistent about what he wants. I love that attitude, though it’s the same type of tension for me as having to worry about MIDI cues and racks full of modules.”

Flea doesn’t dispute Andre’s assessment: “I want the action just right, and it can always be different because of the weather. It also has to do with my mood. If I’m feeling cheerful and courageous, I won’t worry about the action being too high, but if I’m in a wimpy mood, I’ll want it easy and low for fast, difficult stuff.”

Navarro summarizes the pair’s technical philosophy: “All that matters on this planet is how you feel about something. I can’t waste energy from my emotional side to tune up on the technical side of things when I don’t get any feeling from that side. You know, the people who give me my strings wanted me to visit their booth at the NAMM show, but I’m not even sure who they are! That stuff doesn’t mean anything! Just for a joke, I’ll say things in the studio like ‘Throw a 414 on there’ or ‘Run it through the Lexicon,’ because that’s what engineers always say. I have no idea what it means.” “Yeah,” snickers Flea, “The other day you said, ‘Hey can you guys give me a 414,’ and it was one! I thought you’d made it up.”

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